Overcoming sushi saturation

The Chicago diner with a hankerin' for raw fish and vinegared rice doesn't have to look far these days.

In a market supposedly dominated by meat and potatoes, sushi and sashimi are everywhere. Peeking at us in the ready-to-eat section of the supermarkets. Proudly displayed in airport kiosks. Readily available in convenience stores, ethnic groceries and even, God help us, ballparks (although in Chicago at least this is restricted to the luxury-box crowd).

Ferrari, a luxurious Italian restaurant in Lincoln Park, offers an "Italian sashimi" platter among its appetizer selections. NoMI, whose international cuisine bears a distinct French accent, makes room for a daily sushi/sashimi platter on its menu. So does The Lobby, a casual hotel dining space within The Peninsula Chicago. Recently the Ritz-Carlton Chicago hosted a sushi brunch, augmenting its regular sumptuous buffet with a made-to-order sushi station.

All this threatens to make the classic sushi bar irrelevant, if not obsolete. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, four Japanese restaurants—three newcomers and a well-established veteran—are making a point of differentiating their product from the sushi and sashimi crowd, emphasizing cooked dishes, fusion cooking and service formats relatively new to Chicago, and in the process, educating diners that there's more to Japanese cuisine than raw tuna and teriyaki chicken.

Oysy

Located on the corner of Michigan Avenue and 9th Street, Oysy is an izagaya, a type of Japanese eatery that combines the informality of a bistro with the grazing format of a tapas bar. Portions are small, and with only five exceptions, everything on the menu is $9 or less.

Though South Loop residents hailed the December arrival of good sushi to their neighborhood, owner Ying Chen realizes that Oysy needs to be more.

"This is a new market," he says, "but there will be more sushi coming, so I better do something different. Oysy is like a double restaurant; I have three sushi chefs and three hot cooks."

The hot side of the menu cranks out dishes such as grilled lobster, presented in two quenelle-shaped nibbles; the lobster is tasty enough, but the portion is disappointingly scrawny even in this context. Two grilled oysters, served with tangy radish and herby spinach dipping sauces, make a much better choice, as do teriyaki-glazed eel and tempura lotus root stuffed with seasoned chicken. Grilled baby octopi are slightly chewy but have a light charcoal flavor that works nicely with miso sauce.

The uncooked half of the menu is highlighted by the yummy toro tartare, tossed in wasabi mayonnaise and served on a bed of shaved radish in a martini glass. The usual nigiri and maki sushi varieties are available, the sweet and earthy uni (sea urchin) being particularly good.

Two maki rolls are deemed worthy of inclusion in the "chef's special" category. One is the Firecracker maki, a combination of shrimp, eel, avocado and cream cheese that's rolled and tempura-fried; accents of jalapeno-infused tobiko are responsible for the "firecracker" designation, but in truth the dish provides just an accent of heat, rather than an explosion. The other maki is called Scallop Emerald maki, containing pieces of cooked scallop, asparagus and cucumber and a slightly spicy sauce.

The dining room is cool and modern in an industrial way. The south and east walls are pure glass, offering city and park views. Interior walls glow under green lights. Tables and bench seating are fashioned from bamboo plywood supported by steel frames, a spartan look and feel that may discourage lingering except for twentysomethings, who make up a substantial portion of the clientele.

Service can be uneven; one weekend night the kitchen was unnervingly slow producing dishes. But servers were so quick with apologies, updates and the occasional complimentary dish that it was impossible to stay annoyed for long.

The restaurant's Web site, www.oysysushi.com, allows patrons to make dinner reservations online, and also to place carryout orders. Indeed, customers who order carryout online receive a 10 percent discount.

Oysy
888 S. Michigan Ave.
312-922-1127

Open: Dinner Mon.-Sun., lunch Mon.-Fri.
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Other: Reservations accepted; no smoking

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Todai

Perhaps the antithesis to Oysy's studied minimalism is Todai (TOE-dye), a national chain that established its first and only Midwest outpost in Schaumburg's Woodfield Mall in late December. An all-you-can-eat sushi and seafood buffet, a sprawling cafeteria that seats 450 and for one modest price ($12.95 lunch, $22.95 dinner, a dollar or two more on weekends) allows grazing to your heart's content.

There are two main buffet lines, one for sushi and sashimi items (presented on trays atop beds of ice, and replenished frequently) and another for cooked seafood, gyoza dumplings and the like. There is a separate station for soups, another for udon noodles and another for Western-style desserts, including a made-to-order crepes area.

The lunch layout is impressive, but the quality increases (along with the price) at dinner, when items such as scallops on the half shell, crab legs, shrimp, oysters and shrimp cocktail are added to the mix, along with salmon roe and yellowtail sushi.

Quick-moving servers clear plates, fetch drinks (beer, wine and sake are available, along with nonalcoholic drinks) and present the check. Otherwise you're on your own.

Todai
Woodfield Shopping Center, Schaumburg
847-619-1088

Open: lunch and dinner Mon.-Sun
Credit cards: A, M, V
Other: Reservations accepted; no smoking

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Dr. Zushi

Bill and Mariann Marinberg already own three-year-old LionFish Zushi in Northbrook Court Mall, so when they opened a second restaurant in October, they knew they wanted something different.

"We wanted to take the ordinary," Mariann Marinberg says, "and turn it on its tail."

That they have done with Dr. Zushi, where dishes such as bowtie pasta with shrimp and white wine sauce coexist with duck confit spring rolls and 20-piece sashimi platters on one anything-goes menu. This in a romantically lit, European-looking dining room with black napery and copper-tinged walls. And a Brazilian guitarist on Friday nights.

The lack of a coherent identity doesn't keep the food from tasting good. Tony Pico, late of Technicolor Kitchen in Chicago, whips out traditional and fusion dishes with equal aplomb, one minute sending out seared ahi tuna over wild rice and an Indian-style curry broth, then next offering a straight-up braised lamb shank atop bleu-cheese mashed potatoes and a red-wine sauce.

Signature maki rolls are bursting with ingredients. The Piranha roll contains no actual piranha, but lots of broiled eel and spicy crab with avocado, cream cheese and crispy salmon skin. The Monet is a hybrid of a spicy tuna roll and a crunchy California roll, and the aptly named Tuna Heaven is a spicy tuna roll with more fresh tuna wrapped around it.

Desserts include a whimsical eggroll that's actually a deep-fried pastry roll filled with pecan and chocolate-chip cookie dough. Compared to that, the crisp plum strudel with raspberry sorbet is downright predictable.

Dr. Zushi
300 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook
847-564-1862

Open: Dinner Mon.-Sun., lunch Mon.-Fri
Credit cards: A, M, V
Other: Reservations recommended; Smoking at bar only.

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Katsu

For 15 years, this intimate restaurant has delighted Northwest Side diners, though the restaurant really didn't come into its own until a remodeling project four years ago greatly upgraded its bare-bones interior. The two-room space now seats 80 patrons in quiet comfort.

The restaurant is named for chef/owner Katsushi Imamura, whose wife, Haruko, runs the front of the house. While there's a good selection of sushi and sashimi, notably those found on the daily special card, most of the dishes at Katsu are cooked.

The word katsu also refers to pork cutlet, which is one of the star appetizers. Kushikatsu consists of twin skewers of lightly breaded and fried pork cubes, served with a spicy Japanese mustard. Another hit is the chawan mushi, a smooth and savory egg custard filled with eel, shrimp, chicken and shiitake mushrooms; the rich, smoky eel, with a hint of barbecue tang, is the star of this dish.

Traditional entrees include duck sukiyaki, fatty pieces of duck with bean sprouts and huge tofu cubes in a tangy-sweet broth. Teriyaki salmon, a big seller, is decent enough but my sample was overcooked.

My favorite dish is the flounder karaage, in which crispy cubes of flounder are arrayed within the fish carcass, which has been double-fried so that the entire dish, meat and bones, is edible. It's a very pretty presentation, and fun to eat.

Katsu
2651 W. Peterson Ave.
773-784-3383

Open: Dinner Wed.-Mon.
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Other: Reservations recommended; no smoking

Originally published March 21, 2003.

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